As the parent of a child who suffers from >selective mutism, I have had to learn a great deal about this condition over the last year or so.
My daughter has been through a lot of upheaval in her short life. We moved six times inside five years. It was stressful for me to cope with, so I can only imagine what it must have been like for the kids.
The final two moves saw them removed from the ‘family’ home into temporary accommodation, then subsequently, into an affordable apartment which we could finally call our own.
In the middle of this, the girls began to attend the local Kindergarten. They had attended a Kindergarten previously, but one which was bi-lingual. At this Kindergarten, my daughter spoke, but only in English.
She would speak German at home, to her sister and sometimes to me, but not in Kindergarten with the other children.
Following the break up of the family and the subsequent moves, she was now not only required to start a brand new Kindergarten, with unknown children and unfamiliar surroundings, but this Kindergarten was also an exclusively Swiss one, and therefore one-hundred percent German speaking.
So when she didn’t speak in the beginning. None of us thought it unusual. She’d need time to adjust, we decided. It was a lot for a four year old to cope with.
The months passed, and she remained silent. Happy, but silent.
She would come home and enthuse to me about how much fun she was having in Kindergarten. She chattered to me non-stop about any subject she could think of. She played happily with our English speaking friends kids, and never had any communication issues whatsoever….even in a social environment. She played with our neighbours’ children and gradually her grasp of the Swiss German language became more and more solid. She took part in the Kindergarten nativity play….as a (non-speaking) sheep, and I almost burst with pride as I watched her ‘perform’!
More time passed, and still not a sound came from her lips…….. in Kindergarten.
Still, the teachers and I saw no cause for concern. She would happily attend, and by now was integrated into the class. Her piers had accepted her as she was. They loved my silent little girl, and as kids always do, they found alternative ways to communicate with her.
During the summer holidays we would regularly visit our local Lakeside Beach complex. Here she would play happily (and noisily) with the other children in our group. So it barely registered when one of her little Kindergarten friends came along to join in, that she would suddenly fall silent again. They would invariably trot off together, hand in hand, to play in the sand. It seemed all was normal.
The new term began. The second year of Kindergarten, and the year in which she would be assessed regarding her readiness to attend school.
Just before half term, they called me in to talk to them. By now, they were getting worried.
“We cannot assess her if she doesn’t speak.” They explained.
“She seems happy enough, and she’s very popular with the other children, but we are concerned she’s not progressing and this is because of her (lack of) communication.”
“What would you like me to do?” I asked.
“She has no problems communicating at home, it’s really only in this environment that she won’t speak. Plus when she is with her other Kindergarten friends. It’s almost as though she has built a brick wall and cannot overcome her fears.”
I felt devastated. I wanted my little girl to be happy. I didn’t want her to lack the confidence to speak. I blamed myself, thinking, almost inevitably, that this was something to do with the Divorce and the subsequent disappearance of her Father from her life.
We agreed that she would be psychiatrically assessed, after which we would decide on the best course of action.
Before we went for our appointment at the hospital, I spent a morning with her in Kindergarten, in the hopes that my presence may encourage her to talk.
She was so happy when I told her I’d be coming with her! Her little face beamed with pride and all the way there she chattered about her classmates and what they would be doing today. Then, as soon as we set foot into the grounds of the school, she fell silent. She nodded and smiled, but not one sound came out.
It was heartbreaking for me to watch, because this wasn’t the little girl I knew. I was shocked. And felt so desperately sorry for her.
At one point she was allowed to take me upstairs to show me the ‘Barbie Corner’, where they are allowed to play house in their ‘free’ time.
It was just the two of us now, so I was convinced I would be able to get her to speak to me. I picked up a doll.
“She’s lovely!” I said. “What’s her name?”
She just looked at me, her eyes pleading.
“Can you whisper it?”
She tried. She tried so hard. I was willing her on, but she was physically not capable of uttering a sound, not even to me.
It was only then that I realised how truly difficult this was for her, and this was not a choice she was making by herself.
I felt dismayed to see her like this. I wanted to help her but there was nothing I could do.
I consoled myself with the knowledge that the little girl before me was not sad, uncomfortable or tense in the Kindergarten setting. She was relaxed and enjoying being there. She just couldn't speak!
As we left to set off home for lunch, she began to whisper very quietly. The further we got from the school playground, the louder her voice became, until we were eventually out onto the street and my little girl was chattering away like anything. I couldn't shut her up all the way home!
The psychiatrist was very clear. My daughter has no learning difficulties whatsoever (if anything, she is overly bright). She is one of many children who suffer from this unusual disorder. The exact cause cannot be pin pointed. It is widely thought that low self esteem plays a part. One psychologist suggested it can happen to children who are bi-lingual. There are no definite determinants of the cause. It could be a number of things combined.
And now here we are, nine months later, and she's getting ready to take her first steps into the Swiss education system. The Teachers, Psychiatrists, Speech Therapist and myself are all confident that she will thrive in school. We're just not sure if she'll speak......yet!
We'll keep working on it though. We gently encourage but we don't push it. We let her express herself in a way in which she feels comfortable. We don't talk about the fact that she doesn't talk, at least not for now.
Here's hoping her confidence will grow over time, and with it her ability to overcome her fears. Until then, lots and lots of love, encouragement, and understanding are required.
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